Opinion: Civil Partnerships, a thoroughly modern union

Sophie Bridger is the President Elect of  Liberal Youth Scotland. LYS brought a motion on Equal Marriage to Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in 2010. It was passed and our manifesto launched on Tuesday has a commitment to open up marriage to same sex couples and civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. Sophie looks at the future for civil partnerships.

When the subject of gay marriage is approached, you’re hard pushed to find a Liberal who disagrees. The right to marriage, complete with religious ceremony, should be available to all. But when it comes to civil partnerships, I often find people are slightly bemused by the concept of opening them up to straight couples.  After all, they can already get a civil wedding, and that’s just the same, right?

To be honest, I’m still not sure if civil partnerships and marriage are the same thing. What I do know is that through lack of choice, they are treated as the same institution. I rarely meet a couple who will describe themselves as ‘civil-partnershipped’ – they are married. But I’m not convinced that these institutions are the same thing.

Civil partnerships were designed specifically not to be marriage, in order to placate religious groups and the right wing. Without a doubt, civil partnerships and marriage are equal, in rights, in responsibilities, and commitment. But they have the potential to offer very different things to a couple, different frameworks and different boundaries for a relationship to grow within. Marriage offers religious blessing, whilst up until recently civil partnerships have been compulsorily secular until that changed thanks to the Liberal Democrats. And whether you like it or not, they also have very different historical contexts. Marriage comes with a lot of social baggage. Brides can keep their name, they can refuse to be given away by their father, but ultimately they’re still participating in an institution that originated in the ownership of women.

In truth, most of the original reasons that marriage existed are now long redundant, as seen in the massive drop in marriage rates, and corresponding rise in co-habitation. There is no stigma in raising a family outside of marriage, and women no longer need the legal or financial protection of their husbands. The latest census is likely to show that we are largely an atheist nation, meaning that the majority of people in the UK no longer need any religious blessing to legitimise their relationship.

So what, then, is the point of marriage? Some people marry to simplify the legal minefield of cohabitation. But the main reason is because two people love each other, and want to commit to each other publicly. A civil partnership gives you both these things in a way that is much more modern and relevant than marriage. Since the creation of civil unions in France, 95% of couples taking part have been straight. Frankly, civil partnerships are simply too good an idea to restrict to 10-15% of the population.

A minority of the gay community, including Mark Vernon in the Guardian feel that allowing civil partnerships to be extended to straight couples will undermine them and make them less significant. Sound familiar? It’s the same argument that religious groups have been using to exclude gay couples from marriage for years. Allowing civil partnerships to be available to all will not somehow turn it into ‘Marriage-lite’. It gives civil partnerships back a distinct identity as a revolutionary alternative, not just a substitute for gay marriage.

Allowing marriages to be conducted outside of places of worship was a social breakthrough, leading to the creation of the civil marriage. But Britain is increasingly becoming a secular society, and we should have a truly secular union to reflect that. With marriage rates as low as they are, it’s clear that civil weddings don’t fill that need. Civil partnerships in their current form are just a cop-out from gay marriage. But extended to everyone, they are a modern, radical way to commit to a partner.

Posted as part of  Caron Lindsay’s Elections, Referendums and Lib Dem Achievements Guest Editor Day

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The French system though is slightly different, in that all couples marrying have to have the civil, legal ceremony first, and that’s the bit that “marries” you. The religious ceremony is seen by French law as no more than an optional “add-on”. It’s all to do with the very strict separation of church and state in France (much more so than the US, even though France is still notionally a Catholic country.)

    Personally, I prefer the French system. It allows legal equality between straight and gay couples, and allows for the religious bit to be optional. It also means that priests can choose not to bless a couple if they so wish – that might be because they’re gay, or because they’re divorced, or live together. So it finds a neat way to respect the views of some priests whilst still allowing others to conduct the ceremony, and gets round the “vicars to be forced to marry gays” headlines in the Telegraph.

  • “Without a doubt, civil partnerships and marriage are equal, in rights, in responsibilities, and commitment.”

    In which case, what’s the point of having separate names? Just have one legal state and let people call it what they like. If you don’t like the “social baggage” that supposedly comes with marriage, don’t carry it with you. Not everybody does.

  • This article is a classic example of how presenting a case in the wrong way can make it totally turn people off!

    I agree with you on civil partnerships – I think straight couples should have them, just as I think gay couples should be able to get married. I believe this because I believe in equality, pure and simple.

    But some of your arguments make me very angry and as someone who would like at some point to get married (not civil partnered – married), I resent being told that a civil partnership is more “modern and relevant” (implication: civil partnerships are better; marriage is old-fashioned and irrelevant). I’m also not keen on the point that marriage is “an institution that originated in the ownership of women”. I’m not going to deny that it’s true, but it is possible to redefine things, you know!

    Belief in non-discrimination, plus all the legal benefits that Dave Page highlights, is more than enough to justify wanting civil partnerships open to straight couples. Which option is better, more modern, and more relevant shouldn’t come into it!

  • Sandra Folliot 7th Apr '11 - 7:51pm

    bit of comment on the French system:
    whilst PACS (short for solidarity pact) do confer some extra legal rights, and duties, compare to a simple co-habitation, they are NOT equivalent to a marriage.
    For a start they can be formed AND dissolved VERY easily. They’re not considered much of a commitment but more of an administrative thing. They do not give automatic inheritance rights (can be clarified when the contract is made) or any parental rights.
    So whilst I’d be perfectly happy for the UK to have something equivalent (you actually can get PACSed here if one of the partner is French, but the legal framework is dodgy), I also think that GBLTs should have the option of full marriage.

  • In a reasonable society there would never have been a need for the fudge that is civil partnerships.

    Marriage should be open to all. Whatever it’s historical basis (and I would probably argue that it is not as simple as the ownership of women!) it has developed in this county to be a partnership of equals recognised in law. As such it should be open to any two citizens who love each other (not restricted due to age or current marriage) whatever their orientation or gender status.

    As to the religious elements (and as an active ember of the Church of England) we need to keep pushing for this to be at the discretion of the individual minister. That way it will follow the pattern of re-marriage of divorcees. No one forces a minister to carry out a service against their will but there will be options available to those who wish a religious service. More and more parishes no marry divorcees and I would expect the same pattern to be followed.

    I’m a commited Christian who hopes to be able to attend a Gay wedding in a C of E Church as soon as possible. And I think I am probably if not in the majority, certainly in a growing (if not vocal enough) minority.

  • Derek Young 8th Apr '11 - 9:56am

    I was happy to speak in the debate supporting the proposal which was approved and is now in the Scottish Lib Dem 2011 election manifesto. It also called for legal humanist civil partnerships, alongside the established Scottish principle of legal humanist marriage (see http://www.humanism-scotland.org.uk), and also for a process to allow civil partners to convert their partnership into a marriage if they wished.

    For me, the most powerful statement of principle on this issue was given, unexpectedly, in a written court judgement. In 2003, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts struck down the Commonwealth’s ban on same-sex marriage (Goodridge v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts). Despite my previous experience with the judiciary and legal profession teaching me that quite a few written judgements are fairly impenetrable to a non-legal reader, and sometimes include a dense thicket of jargon, I was bowled over by the opinion of Chief Justice Marshall in that case. It contained not only erudite analysis and effortless good sense, but a remarkable elegance and even poetry, which is not the stuff of normal legal judgements. He wrote:

    “[m]arriage … bestows [both] enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry … [and] is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family.”

    “Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

    “For decades, indeed centuries, in much of [America] … no lawful marriage was possible between white [person] and black [person]. Yet the right to marry means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one’s choice. In this case, as in [the cases which struck down the ban on interracial marriage] …, history must yield to a more fully developed understanding of the invidious quality of the discrimination.”

    Therefore, without the right to choose to marry, same-sex couples are not only denied full protection of the laws, but are “excluded from the full range of human experience.”

    “The marriage ban works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason.

    The absence of any reasonable relationship between the same-sex marriage ban and a justification based on the protection of public health, safety, or general welfare, suggests that the marriage restriction is rooted in persistent prejudices against persons who are (or who are believed to be) homosexual.

    The Constitution cannot control such prejudices but neither can it tolerate them. Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect. Limiting the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the basic premises of individual liberty and equality under the law …”

    The Supreme Court gave the state legislature six months to enact legislation allowing same-sex marriage. A couple of months later, the legislature asked the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on whether civil unions – their equivalent of civil partnerships – would comply with the court’s earlier ruling. They advised emphatically that it would not, writing:

    “having a separate institution for same-sex couples only compounds, rather than corrects, the constitutional infirmity. Establishing a separate “civil union” status for same-sex couples “would have the effect of maintaining and fostering a stigma of exclusion that the Constitution prohibits,” the court explained. “The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal.”

    Eight years on, I’m delighted that Scotland seems to be moving in the direction of this kind of understanding.

  • I appreciate the principle of wanting a partnership which reflects common attitudes, but I don’t agree with this claim that marriage originated with the ownership of women. It’s simply dismissive conjecture. Sure that may have been true in Greek or Roman legal systems, but then those were slave based civilisations that hardly reflect the entirety of history. Marriage is as old as human culture itself, it pre-dates governments, literacy, and the forms of property ownership which go along side. The cultural legacy of marriage is the reason why couples do not describe themselves as ‘civil-partnershipped’, it is something which resonates with every virtue in our subconscious, of family life, of what masculine and feminine symbolically represent – human beings caring for each other in a physical and emotional symbiosis.

  • Marriage, as we have come to understand it, is a thoroughly modern construct, & traditionally a means of economic & social exchange. After all, Catholic priests were once allowed to marry, until the Church felt the need to deal with the diminution of its patrimony! Even the concept of marriage as ‘sacramental’ is a modernist novelty. Gay marriage? Why not!

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